Adapted from Latte or Cappuccino, 125 Decisions That Will Change Your Life by Hilly Janes (Michael O’Mara Books, RRP £9.99, Amazon ).
Some of us need no encouragement, but manufacturers and some diet gurus suggest we indulge in dark chocolate with a high cocoa content (70 per cent plus). That’s because cocoa contains nutrients called flavonoids, which are thought to promote heart health. But scientists don’t really understand how this works and, of course there is no escaping the downside of the fat and sugar content that makes even a small 35g bar contain about 200 calories. If some good old British confectionary will hit the spot, try a two-finger KitKat, which has 107 calories.
There are so many things that make a bag of hot, salty, freshly cooked chips irresistible. One of them is the fat in which they are deep fried. If you take the same size potato and cut it up into matchstick-size chips, there will be a greater surface area of potato to absorb the fat than if you cut it up into fewer, chunkier chips. So the healthiest way to cook chips is oven baked in a little oil with the skin on, because it contains more fibre and nutrients. If you are buying takeaway or ready-made chips it’s a good idea to check the labels. For example: a 100g serving of McDonald’s fries has 330 calories and 16g of fat, while the same amount of Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself Oven Chips has only 151 calories and 2g of fat.
Answer: Oven baked wedges, skin on
Gin was known as “mother’s ruin” in the 18th century, when the artist Hogarth depicted its terrible effects on poverty stricken Londoners, but now mother’s ruin is more likely to be a bottle of wine. While a glass contains about 2-3 units of alcohol and about 150 calories (and a bottle about 500-600), a single gin (25cl) and slimline tonic has one unit and about 60 calories. Clear spirits like gin and vodka contain fewer congeners - substances produced during fermentation that give alcoholic drinks like red wine a darker colour, and are thought to contribute to hangovers. If you aren’t too worried about 20-40 extra calories, try Fever-Tree’s delicious mixers. Cheers!
Answer: G&T or V&T
Ice cream is a lovely way to celebrate some sunshine, and the good news is that a scoop of vanilla ice cream has only about 80 calories (not the clotted cream kind, mind), while a Classic Magnum is more like 240. If you are more of a lollipop lady, even better, as most plain fruit flavoured ice lollies are less than 50 calories. Or have the best of both with a Solero at 90 calories.
Answer: Scoop of vanilla
You skip breakfast, pick up a coffee on the way to work and look longingly at the delicious pastries and cakes. What’s the best choice? Even a healthy-sounding skinny blueberry muffin at Starbucks packs in 372 calories – more than a 58g Mars bar (260 calories), while their classic blueberry muffin has a whopping 481. Scones are generally among the least-worst offenders in the cake stakes because they contain relatively low amounts of fat and sugar, so at 252 calories, for example, the Starbucks plain scone with a scraping of jam or butter is a better choice.
Should it be Chinese or Indian? With its pulse-rich dahl, packed with protein and unrefined carbs, huge range of vegetables and lean meat like chicken, Indian food can be very healthy. But it can also be laden with ghee, a form of butter that is very high in saturated fat. Breads such as puri are fried so they contain hidden calories, and there’s more fat in the cream used in malai and korma dishes.
Chinese takeaways offer lean meat and vegetable dishes too - albeit the latter mainly based on greens. And while stir frying in a little oil is a healthy way to cook, many Chinese dishes are deep-fried, come with built-in starchy noodles, and salty, sugary sauces – sweet and sour pork, for example.
It’s all down to how wisely you navigate the menus, but if you avoid the oily, creamy Indian options and focus on dahls, vegetables, clay-oven baked tikkas, and some plain rice (not pilau, which contains fat), Indian food is the healthier choice. And because of the high protein and fibre content, it will keep you fuller for longer. Aim to half fill your plate with veg, going easy on the sauce they are cooked in, and the other half with lean protein and plain rice.
Pudding or cheese
When it comes to the end of a meal and you can’t choose between pudding and cheese, which wins calorie-wise? A couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream, fruit sorbet or a creme caramel can still give you change from 200 calories, but choosing the ubiquitous chocolate fudge cake, slice of cheesecake or tiramisu will cost you anything from 350-550 calories (based on the nutritional information given by one popular Italian chain). Add a dollop of cream or mascarpone and you add about another 150-200 calories.
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What about cheese and biscuits? A 30g match-box sized serving of Cheddar contains 80–100 calories, depending on the type. It’s best to go for lower-fat cheeses such as goat, feta and Brie. A couple of wholegrain crackers, like oatcakes, supply about 100 calories.
So, cheese and biscuits can amount to fewer calories than most desserts, and offer better nutritional value. The desserts are mostly made up of fat and sugar, and while cheese also contains fat, it has a bigger proportion of filling protein and nutrients like calcium, and let’s not forget fibre in the crackers. Add a few celery sticks or a handful of grapes and you’ve got one of your five-a-day portions of fruit and veg into the bargain.
Answer: Cheese and biscuits
Who hasn’t had to grab something for supper from the supermarket on the way home from work? There’s a perception that chilled food is somehow healthier than frozen, but that often has more to do with the way it’s packaged and presented than fact. Cartons of food stacked up in a freezer rarely look as appetizing as their chilled counterparts. But chilled ready meals can contain more additives and stabilizers than food that’s been preserved by freezing.
Fish and peas, for example, are frozen so quickly that they may contain more nutrients and be fresher than their chilled counterparts. Frozen food is often cheaper, too: take bags of delicious summer berries from the freezer section and compare the price with imported out-of-season strawberries.
As frozen food lasts longer, it’s less likely to be thrown away because it’s gone off before you eat it. According to the campaigning group Love Food Hate Waste, in the UK we throw away 8.3 million tonnes of food from our homes annually, which costs the average family with children £680 a year, or £56 a month, and has serious environmental implications, too.
Don’t turn your nose up at tinned veg and fruit either: sweetcorn, beans, peaches and pears are great store-cupboard staples, especially in early spring when home grown British produce is thin on the ground – but look out for fruit in juice rather than syrup.